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Mentoring Young Sustainability Leaders – 3 Key Lessons

Reading Time: 6 minutes

After 25 years’ experience in environmental impact assessment, responsible management and sustainability. I repeatedly find that 3 common themes crop up again and again when coaching and mentoring young managers and leaders. When mentoring young sustainability managers who have to possess a change management attitude, these 3 lessons need particular attention:

Lesson 1 – Inexperience is Normal

Inexperience is to be expected when tiou start a new organisational role. Accept that you are not the fully formed product that you will be in a couple of years time. In the late ‘80s I entered the UK Power Industry.  I was tasked with helping ScottishPower set up its first environmental team.  There were no rules, little supervision and precious few guidelines on ‘how to get green done’.  My MD’s first words to me were that there were rabbits at the bottom of his garden! A clear sign that he was stuggling to talk with an environmentalist! 

Soon after this I was working on a proposed waste to energy project with one of the older mechanical engineers. I was struggling to understand and complete the air dispersion models for the plant.  I was using an early ADMS computer programme, he was checking my answers with a pencil on on scrap paper! I was embarassed by my lack of knowledge and internally bemoaning my lack of experience in this area.

 ‘Experience’ he gently said, ‘is only gained through inexperience!’  A great lesson from a highly intelligent and modest man.

Knowledge, familiarity and skills are only achieved through repeated practice, application and learning. Sometimes you will be successful on the first attempt but at other times practice will make perfect. The lesson is to learn from your mistakes as there are few short cuts to gaining greater experience.

The more you know, the less you know

One lesson that they never teach you at university is that as you grow in experience and confidence. The questions that you start to address will get bigger. New areas of knowledge will open up, new linkages will be discovered and each solutions opens up unibntended consequences. 

No one understands the overall complexity of ‘the environment’. For heaven’s sake, we don’t even possess an internationally recognised definition for the word.  Sustainability leaders have to accept that what they will face is often new to the business, specific to place, and tied up with socio-environemntal intangibles. 

The answer is to accept that in some areas you will always remain a ‘professional generalist’. Possessing the skills to cover a wide spectrum of topics, a specialist insome and an amateur in many others. 

What is the Solution?

Asking others for help is not a weakness but a strength, but it is a hard lesson to learn. It is a leadership strength that will pay back dividends if managed carefully.  In complex scenarios there is no definitive guidebook, often you have to work it out for yourself. In these situations the best advice is to surround yourself with those that can add to the jigsaw solution. 

Short of an answer, the best way forward is always to say:

  • I don’t know but I will find out and come back to you on that issue
  • Does anybody possess the answer to this, or
  • Could you engineer a better solution that contains these outcomes

Rather than losing trust by displaying ignorance, it helps builds trust as you solve complex problems as a team. Being brave enough to admit to limits often emphasises your professionalism and willingness to teamwork with others. This can have a significant impact on project culture as ohers start to seek support and advice. The worst thing you can do is bluster or pretend that you fully understand all the parameters of the dilemma.  No one expects you to know everything. Relax. And ask open questions that may stimulate the answer through others.  Try it!

Lesson 2 – Your Sustainability Problems are not Unique

Few problems are unique, but they may be novel in organisational contexts. It is not uncommon for inexperienced sustainability managers to feel that as the expert they must find the solution. Outthere there is a wealth of experience, other case studies and innovative solutions to adapt and utilise.

What is the Solution?

You can internalise a problem and hope that training finds a solution, or you can externalise it by seeking the views of others. Whichever route you take the responsibility for solving the problem remains with you and must be ultimately owned by you.  Personally, I enjoy playing devils advocate when debating problems and solution. I want to hear the strength of other convictions and how they would address the issue. What they would suggest and what external experiences they bring to the table.  I also data mine externally looking at how other organisations have addressed similar issues to gain ideas.  I then go back and work through this new information before taking the decision to press forward again.

As Tom Lehrer in 1953 so aptly put it about the secret of being a successful mathematician:

‘Plagiarize!  Plagiarize! Let no one else’s work evade your eyes

Remember why the good Lord made your eyes

So, don’t shade your eyes but plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize

Only be sure always to call it please ‘research’!”

This has helped find solutions in unlikley areas – using water pipeline technology to solve electricity cable issues, applying Car industry decision making models to increase quality, and finding the answers to ecological problems in Hardware shops.  Keep your problem-solving radar active and never let a good idea pass you by!    

Your responsibility ultimately lies in making the decision on how the organisation progresses, you can’t duck this, and the decision risk should always remain with you as the accountable leaders.  You can make decisions via committee but watch out for group think and consensus through banality.  The most appropriate approach is often to cast widely, listen to what others have to say, challenge their assumptions (try playing the Devil’s Advocate in conversations) and ultimately select the one that you can confidently deliver on through your abilities, resources and organisational support networks.  

Lesson 3 – Always have a Vision

Visions are bigger than tasks. Through tasks and projects we eventually deliver our sustainability Vision. I have seen young sustainability leaders when thier initiatives are dashed through organisational inertia to change.  I have experienced it myself at times. It can set you back mentally and physically when an organisation refuses to change its preferred ways of working. 

Then is the time to take a good long hard look in the mirror … were you following your own preferred agenda or in the best interests of the organisation.  Had you planned sufficiently well, had you sold the idea to others, and ultimately would it have added real value?  It is pointless pursuing an agendas that no one else in the organisation believes in or understands. 

Take a hard look at the sustainability priorities you are setting. Ask yourself if they link back to your primary vision (ie climate change adaptation). Look at them not only through an environmental lens, but also what it will mean in terms of enterprise risk management, corporate planning and resources. Then look again in terms of internal budgets, brand and stakeholder benefits.  Incorporating these factors into your sustainability agenda helps prioritise action, expands your organisational worldview, forces you to seek input from others and to understand how their cog spins in the corporate machine and who they interface with. 

What is the Solution?

Ask yourself whose sustainability agenda are you working on and what is the desired outcome?  Is it your own preference, added value for the organizations or the world?  These objectives are not either/or options they interact, but there are trade-offs, and ultimately your focus must be on the operational, economic and sustainability of the organisation that employs you.  That doesn’t mean that you say ‘yes’ to everything.  You are there after all to bring through cultural change management towards a more sustainable operating business model.  But in organisational life there are often trade-offs that need to be considered, and these may require you to put aside your personal sustainability agenda for the moment and get stuck into the priorities of others in the business.  Similarly pursuing a radical sustainability agenda will not be in the best interest of a company if no one understands its value, instead a more strategic, leading-but-not-agitating approach may take you further.  Whatever your agenda, the preferred legacy is that your colleagues adopt the initiative into their personal worldview, live it and hopefully pass it on others – that is success in sustainability leadership book!

At Leading Green, our approach to sustainability in business consulting encourages our clients to look closely at their own internal leadership strengths and goals.  Helping them adopt an inquisitive state of mind and supporting them in how sustainability can support their long-term business strategy.


mentoring, new leaders, professional development, young professionals

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